October 10, 2012

Summary: As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected for a final time as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader, the party congress emerged as a platform to outline his political agenda in the coming years. Rather than discussing the projects to shape the future of country through a deliberative process that will also see the participation from the delegates from the entire country, the congress became a platform where delegates reaffirmed support for the party leader and his team and their visions of a new Turkey.

Erdoğan’s Way: Turkish Politics in the Wake of the AKP Congress
by Şaban Kardaş

Introduction The Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its fourth congress on September 30. As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected for a final time as the party leader, the congress emerged as a platform to outline his political agenda in the coming years. Erdoğan’s long address energized the crowds in the hall, but its contents caused mixed reactions. While opponents found it lacking in substance and problematic in its vision, supporters hailed it as the affirmation of Erdoğan’s great leadership in Turkish political scene. Many analysts also expressed frustration over the content of the speech. Having raised the expectations in the preceding weeks, they thought Erdoğan should have laid out more concrete and far-reaching projects that would outline how he envisions resolving the country’s structural problems, most notably the Kurdish issue. The speakers from the AKP defended it, maintaining that the booklet distributed at the congress, entitled “Siyasi Vizyon” (Political Vision) contained specific proposals. Still, the speech and the congress deserve a closer examination.

Overall, the congress reiterated the unchallenged position of Erdoğan in Turkish politics. Rather than discussing the projects to shape the future of country through a deliberative process that will also see the participation from the delegates from the entire country, the congress became a platform where delegates reaffirmed support for the party leader and his team and their visions of a new Turkey. It was perhaps largely because of the centrality of the party’s key decision organ that enormous attention was paid to how the new Central Decision and Administration Committee (MKYK) will be formed. Major reform projects in recent years such as the education reform of last summer or the constitutional changes of the summer of 2010 have been prepared by those in the party administration. Contrary to pre-congress speculations, Erdoğan did not introduce a radical overhaul and added a few new names, indicating his contentment with his team’s performance. In a noticeable development, the number of ministers and legal experts in the MKYK was increased. His inclusion of two major constitutional lawyers, for instance,

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indicates his determination to continue with the constitutional reform process. A few days later, the duties of the MKYK members were also rearranged. Reshuffling the top party administration, Erdoğan put several of the incoming members of MKYK in charge of key areas. He positioned Mehmet Ali Sahin as the number two in the party, rather than Numan Kurtulmus, who joined the party right before the congress.1 But, Kurtulmus and Suleyman Soylu, another last minute transfer, were given key administrative positions in the party.2 Erdoğan is also expected to initiate some revisions to the cabinet in the coming days, and some of the incumbent ministers recruited to the MKYK might be left outside the cabinet in the upcoming reshuffle. The New Team and Unique Political Challenges Ahead This new team will shape the AKP’s strategies and govern the country as Erdoğan is bracing for challenging political battles ahead. On one hand, he has to respond to myriad challenges in economics, domestic politics, and foreign policy. Turkey definitely needs visionary leadership from Erdoğan, and so far he has proven capable of devising policies that appeal to a majority of voters. However, given the deepening conflict in Syria, acceleration of armed clashes with the PKK, and structural economic problems, he is likely to encounter more difficult environment at home and abroad. On the other hand, he will need to navigate his party through the challenging electoral tests ahead. Next year, there will be municipal elections, which are likely to increase confrontation in the country, not least around the Kurdish issue. In 2014, the country will hold the first presidential election by popular vote, and parliamentary elections are slated for 2015. The AKP has already expressed its determination to transform Turkish political system into a presidential system as part of the constitutional process. Due to the party’s self-imposed term restriction on reelection, Erdoğan will not be running for the prime ministerial
1 Kurtulmus comes from the same National Outlook Movement origins as Erdoğan, but declined to join the AKP when it was founded by the reformist wing of the movement in 2001. After leading the Islamist Saadet Party, which was seen as the more conservative wing of the NOM, he formed the HAS party. 2 Suleyman Soylu, a career politician, served as the leader of center-right Democrat Party.

post. Whether in a strengthened system or in its current form, in his next big move, Erdoğan will work to be the next occupant of the presidential palace in Cankaya. The party congress, according to many observers, was in fact a major station in his upcoming journey to the presidency. While managing the “presidential transition,” which might even entail a complete redesign of the Turkish political system, Erdoğan’s leadership will be put to the test. He will be under great strain to ensure that this process does not embroil the country’s energy in vicious political struggles. Perhaps in an equally important challenge, Erdoğan will also have to ensure that his party will not be beset with inner divisions and conflicts, as this will also have big repercussions for the country’s stability. The speculations already abound as to who would succeed him, should Erdoğan become the next president or leave the political scene. He has hardly pointed out any potential successor, but with the latest reshuffling of the party administration, he appears determined to maintain his hold over the party even after he leaves that position. This endeavor is not surprising. In the last ten years, under Erdoğan’s effective leadership, the AKP has managed to increase its vote in successive elections by attracting the voters from all walks of life, and come to occupy a unique place in Turkish history. Granted, many analysts still underline how Erdoğan is the only glue that keeps together such diverse constituencies and it is far from certain whether the party has managed to develop an overarching identity and political platform that will ensure its durability and long term sustainability in the country’s political scene. So far, Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership and the party’s impressive track record helped overcome the shortcomings stemming from the inner differences and the lack of an overarching identity, but there has been a fundamental tension in the very formation of the relationship between the AKP and its constituencies. While the AKP was supported by diverse societal groups, the core party leadership and the cabinet membership were far from reflecting the same diversity. They were comprised of politicians around Erdoğan, who also hailed from the same political tradition. The new party leadership maintains this pattern, but it remains to be seen how the AKP’s internal divisions will be managed in the years ahead.


The Unity: A Key Theme In defiance of such observations, however, the underlying message in Erdoğan’s speech and performance was unity: the unity of the party around him and the unity of the nation around the Turkish state. The constant references to the historic events, turning points, and figures, and the recitations of poems were meant to do more than add flavor to the already colorful and impressive speech. They appeared to be carefully chosen to reinforce the sense of shared destiny among the various ethnic and linguistic groups making up the modern Turkey. In particular, one historical narrative chosen and repeatedly used by Erdoğan were the references to the Saljuk Empire’s entry into Anatolia following a victory against the Byzantine Empire in 1071. Until now, the AKP had been presenting its policies as part of a grand vision to prepare the country for the first anniversary of the Turkish Republic in 2023. Taking the observers by surprise, Erdoğan set 2071 as the new target to inspire its government’s policies. This millennial emphasis gives important clues as to how Erdoğan positions himself and the party in the history. Indeed, he has been acting with the self-confidence of fulfilling almost a manifest destiny, whereby the party under his transformative leadership is working to ensure that the nation regains the right place it deserves in the history. Historic references carry other messages, too, especially with regards to giving the AKP a mission and identity and its supporters a sense of belonging and ideological orientation. Erdoğan appears to be almost equating the trajectory of the AKP with that of the nation and the state. As he has been constantly presenting his party as the sole guarantor for the continuation of the structural reform process and the transformation of the country to meet the challenges of the modern age, he views it more than a mere political party. In Erdoğan’s narrative, the AKP emerges as the culmination of the historic journey of the nation, a movement and idea that encompasses almost the entire nation. While doing so, he leans on the center-right political tradition in Turkish politics and capitalizes on the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, which has been fostered in the post-1980 era; hence, the references to 1071. However, it is highly unlikely that this center-right platform alone will help to unite the Turkish society around a single ideal, as the “nation” is much more diverse than that rhetoric suggests, and the societal differences have been politicized to a large extent. By this rhetorical fusion of the AKP and the nation’s trajectory, nonetheless, Erdoğan seeks to compensate for the lack of a distinct political identity for the party and ensure its sustainability. It will be interesting to observe if this meta-narrative will be enough to manage many divisions and conflicts of interest currently kept under control by Erdoğan’s leadership and the party’s successful track record, once he is no longer sitting at the party’s helm.

Erdoğan seeks to compensate for the lack of a distinct political identity for the party and ensure its sustainability.
An Authoritarian Turn? However, Erdoğan’s increasingly nationalist political rhetoric and the tying of the trajectories of the party and the nation together in such interesting ways undergirds other debates on Turkish politics. Lately, one main line of criticism against the government has centered on the charge that Erdoğan is turning authoritarian, and becoming less tolerant of core democratic values of individual freedoms and right to dissent. For instance, the critics point out to some irregularities in the ongoing trials of military and civilian figures on the grounds of coup attempts, or the arrest of some journalists. The non-accreditation of some journalists at the party congress was, for critics, a vivid example of the prime minister’s authoritarian undercurrents. The composition of the international guests in attendance was also another source of criticism. While several figures from the Middle East, including the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani or Hamas leader Halid Meshal, were present, except for former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, there was no major representation of Europe. Taken together with


Erdoğan’s great emphasis on defending Islamic causes worldwide but failure to pay due attention to the European dimension of Turkish politics, especially the reform process, the critics pointed at this composition as further indication of Turkey’s declining commitment to liberal democracy. Again through his peculiar ways, Erdoğan rebuffed charges of authoritarianism in his speech. By telling the story of Sultan Alpaslan, who commanded the victorious Turkish armies in 1071, Erdoğan sent the message that even in the zenith of his power, he will not be corrupted by power and will rule with justice. As a concrete example, he mentioned how his government has taken no steps to interfere with the lifestyles of different societal groups. Such self-declared restraints are unlikely to convince his critics, though. Critics want to see more institutionalized restraints on the exercise of political power, and the apparent decline of the EU on Erdoğan’s agenda is what deepens their worries. The next day, President Abdullah Gül took a more nuanced position on Turkey’s track record regarding individual freedoms, when he delivered his address at the opening of the parliament’s new legislative year. Gül raised concerns about the conditions of the imprisoned deputies, and unlike Erdoğan, underlined the importance of continuing with the EU reforms. The Kurdish Issue Where Erdoğan left off on the Kurdish issue has been yet another source of debate. Prior to the congress, he raised the expectation that he might announce major reforms on the Kurdish question. In his speech, he failed to offer any ground-breaking proposal but seemed determined to address it within his greater narrative of a nation united around a common destiny. In addition to references to 1071, which presumes a deeper shared history between the Kurds and Turks, he also mentioned Saladin Ayyubi, a historic figure embraced by both Kurds and Turks within a common Islamic heritage, and had frequent references to Kurds. Erdoğan put the main responsibility for a solution on Turkey’s Kurds, implying that now that his government has delivered many reforms, it will be up to the Kurds to rise up to the challenge and distance themselves from the PKK’s line. The “Siyasi Vizyon” document included some specific reforms, such as greater use of the Kurdish language in public offices, but, for many critics, they fall short of the drastic measures that are needed to address the deepening polarization around the Kurdish issue. In addition to the future of liberties, the Kurdish issue is likely to remain an area of contention in domestic politics. With his performance in the congress, Erdoğan definitely energized his supporters, but has hardly convinced his critics that his grand vision of a nation united around a shared destiny would offer the best solution to the pressing problems.
About the Author
Dr. Şaban Kardaş works as an associate professor of international relations in the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.

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